As an institution championing the United State’s model of liberal arts education, the American University in Cairo (AUC) is known for allowing a degree of academic freedom that is largely absent in other Egyptian universities. This leniency appears particularly evident in regards to security intervention in student activities and academic freedom.
However, a special issue of the “AUC Times,” the university’s independent student magazine, may reflect a different reality.
Titled “Informants at AUC,” the issue was published on December 14 in both Arabic and English and includes 17 testimonies from faculty members, student union leaders and members of the student government. They discuss security intervention in student activities on campus that occurred either directly through university offices or through external informants.
Aseel, the magazine’s chief editor who chose to give only a first name, tells Mada Masr that the idea for the special issue came when the university formed an Academic Freedoms Committee following the murder of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni earlier this year. The committee asked the university’s community to discuss the problems they face as researchers and academics in different forums in an attempt to provide a safe space for research.
“In one of these meetings,” Aseel says, “a faculty member spoke about an incident in 1999 when they discovered an informant inside the university listening to political discussions the professor was having with his students in the library building at the Tahrir campus. The faculty member wanted to know whether this practice continued. This was when I felt the need to work on this investigative report.”
The faculty member’s testimony is the first account included in the report. The professor, who was cited anonymously, recounted seeing a man wearing civilian clothes sitting next to where the professor and students were talking. When the unidentified man was approached, a fight broke out and it was discovered that he was a lieutenant-colonel. The professor stated seeing the same man in the company of administration officials several times on the university’s grounds and at many other events.
The report suggests that students who are politically active are most likely to be under surveillance, alongside those involved in student activities, like student government and unions. The report includes the testimonies of four student government leaders who said they were frequently contacted by the National Security Agency.
One said that student leaders received phone calls from National Security officers relaying that they were being surveilled. They believed this to be a sign that there are informants on campus, either in the university’s offices or among the students.
Another former student leader explained that there were higher levels of freedom in the period following the January 25 revolution, particularly after student protests led to the resignation of the head of the university’s security office, who was believed to have links to the government’s security apparatus.
However, the student says that, in 2010, before the revolution, they tried to reintroduce the idea of the “Egypt Student Union, but the Office of Student Services (OSD) shot down the idea, asking instead to create a “Student Union Forum.” The student later received a phone call from State Security Investigation Services, asking him to completely forego the idea as “Egypt is going through a difficult moment, and its situation is sensitive.”
“I thought that only politically active students were on the radar, but this testimony, and many others, shows the level of intervention in a university that is said to protect students and their academic freedoms.”
The report also includes the testimony of a student active in the university’s Boycott Divestment and Sanction movement who said that the administration often placed restrictions on the movement, especially when students attempt to hand out flyers calling for a boycott on Israel.
The student recounts being asked to give information about certain students on campus and on certain student activities after being arrested in April. The student was also shown a photo of a fellow student standing inside the library building, and asked questions about her. The angle of the photo, according to the student, suggests that it was taken from where the university’s security is stationed.
“Not everyone knows this information,”says Aseel. “No one is allowed access to the library building without swiping their university ID at the electronic gates. This means that the person who took the photo is from inside the university. This was a scary discovery for me. Before working on this report, I thought that only politically active students were on the radar, but this testimony, and many others, shows the level of intervention in a university that is said to protect students and their academic freedoms.”
The report also mentions an attempt to cancel a lecture by journalist Hossam Bahgat following his release from military intelligence in which he was interrogated about an article he wrote on the Armed Forces in 2015.
According to the report, the university’s security office attempted to cancel the event, which was organized by the “AUC Times” staff. The head of the security office expressed concern about hosting Bahgat, saying he is “writing articles insulting the military.” Despite holding the lecture as planned, the OSD required the magazine to present a list of its staff to the office immediately. The magazine’s staff say that, while this is routinely asked of them, the OSD is usually flexible regarding the timeframe of submission. However, the request following Bahgat’s lecture came with an adamant call for immediate submission.
The report recounts a slew of similar incidents, including one involving an LGBTQ organization. A member of the group told the “AUC Times” that the university’s counseling office, whose stated aim is to offer help to students, transmitted members’ confidential information to their parents without permission. When one of the group members was arrested by police outside campus, he was asked about other group members and their activities at AUC.
University officials were not available to speak with Mada Masr about the allegations in the report.
Mai Shams El-Din investigates security interference in academia at Cairo University, looking at the case of Professor Kholoud Saber.
However the “AUC Times” pamphlet does include an interview with General Mohamed Ebaid, the head of the university’s security office, who denied the existence of security reports on students. He added that he is not concerned with the nature of student activities or their political affiliations.
Ebaid also denied the allegations that there are informants on campus. When told that many of the alleged informants are using secret identities, he said that it is possible a worker, or staff or security member was recruited by National Security without anyone’s knowledge.
In a somewhat contradictory statement, he told “AUC Times” that students are both outside the interest of the Egyptian state’s security apparatus and squarely at the heart of recent political agitation. “No one is interested enough to plant informants,” Ebaid said. “AUC does not worry them [National Security], even though there was a rumor that the January 25 revolution was ignited by AUC students.”
Ebaid also explained that National Security officers were concerned about the recent protests calling for a reduction in tuition fees, especially as they broke out at the same time as the planned 11/11 protests. Police worried that student protests would spread to other universities.
According to Ebaid, the National Security Agency contacted his office when the protests began, but he allayed their concerns by asserting that students were striking for a different reason.